The United Kingdom in transition

Oct 30 JDN 2459883

When I first decided to move to Edinburgh, I certainly did not expect it to be such a historic time. The pandemic was already in full swing, but I thought that would be all. But this year I was living in the UK when its leadership changed in two historic ways:

First, there was the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the coronation of King Charles III.

Second, there was the resignation of Boris Johnson, the appointment of Elizabeth Truss, and then, so rapidly I feel like I have whiplash, the resignation of Elizabeth Truss.

In other words, I have seen the end of the longest-reigning monarch and the rise and fall of the shortest-reigning prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom. The three hundred-year history of the United Kingdom.

The prior probability of such a 300-year-historic event happening during my own 3-year term in the UK is approximately 1%. Yet, here we are. A new king, one of a handful of genuine First World monarchs to be coronated in the 21st century. The others are the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Monaco, Andorra, and Luxembourg; none of these have even a third the population of the UK, and if we include every Commonwealth Realm (believe it or not, “realm” is in fact still the official term), Charles III is now king of a supranational union with a population of over 150 million people—half the size of the United States. (Yes, he’s your king too, Canada!) Note that Charles III is not king of the entire Commonwealth of Nations, which includes now-independent nations such as India, Pakistan, and South Africa; that successor to the British Empire contains 54 nations and has a population of over 2 billion.

I still can’t quite wrap my mind around this idea of having a king. It feels even more ancient and anachronistic than the 400-year-old university I work at. Of course I knew that we had a queen before, and that she was old and would presumably die at some point and probably be replaced; but that wasn’t really salient information to me until she actually did die and then there was a ten-mile-long queue to see her body and now next spring they will be swearing in this new guy as the monarch of the fourteen realms. It now feels like I’m living in one of those gritty satirical fractured fairy tales. Maybe it’s an urban fantasy setting; it feels a lot like Shrek, to be honest.

Yet other than feeling surreal, none of this has affected my life all that much. I haven’t even really felt the effects of inflation: Groceries and restaurant meals seem a bit more expensive than they were when we arrived, but it’s well within what our budget can absorb; we don’t have a car here, so we don’t care about petrol prices; and we haven’t even been paying more than usual in natural gas because of the subsidy programs. Actually it’s probably been good for our household finances that the pound is so weak and the dollar is so strong. I have been much more directly affected by the university union strikes: being temporary contract junior faculty (read: expendable), I am ineligible to strike and hence had to cross a picket line at one point.

Perhaps this is what history has always felt like for most people: The kings and queens come and go, but life doesn’t really change. But I honestly felt more directly affected by Trump living in the US than I did by Truss living in the UK.

This may be in part because Elizabeth Truss was a very unusual politician; she combined crazy far-right economic policy with generally fairly progressive liberal social policy. A right-wing libertarian, one might say. (As Krugman notes, such people are astonishingly rare in the electorate.) Her socially-liberal stance meant that she wasn’t trying to implement horrific hateful policies against racial minorities or LGBT people the way that Trump was, and for once her horrible economic policies were recognized immediately as such and quickly rescinded. Unlike Trump, Truss did not get the chance to appoint any supreme court justices who could go on to repeal abortion rights.

Then again, Truss couldn’t have appointed any judges if she’d wanted to. The UK Supreme Court is really complicated, and I honestly don’t understand how it works; but from what I do understand, the Prime Minister appoints the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chancellor forms a commission to appoint the President of the Supreme Court, and the President of the Supreme Court forms a commission to appoint new Supreme Court judges. But I think the monarch is considered the ultimate authority and can veto any appointment along the way. (Or something. Sometimes I get the impression that no one truly understands the UK system, and they just sort of go with doing things as they’ve always been done.) This convoluted arrangement seems to grant the court considerably more political independence than its American counterpart; also, unlike the US Supreme Court, the UK Supreme Court is not allowed to explicitly overturn primary legislation. (Fun fact: The Lord Chancellor is also the Keeper of the Great Seal of the Realm, because Great Britain hasn’t quite figured out that the 13th century ended yet.)

It’s sad and ironic that it was precisely by not being bigoted and racist that Truss ensured she would not have sufficient public support for her absurd economic policies. There’s a large segment of the population of both the US and UK—aptly, if ill-advisedly, referred to by Clinton as “deplorables”—who will accept any terrible policy as long as it hurts the right people. But Truss failed to appeal to that crucial demographic, and so could find no one to support her. Hence, her approval rating fell to a dismal 10%, and she was outlasted by a head of lettuce.

At the time of writing, the new prime minister has not yet been announced, but the smart money is on Rishi Sunak. (I mean that quite literally; he’s leading in prediction markets.) He’s also socially liberal but fiscally conservative, but unlike Truss he seems to have at least some vague understanding of how economics works. Sunak is also popular in a way Truss never was (though that popularity has been declining recently). So I think we can expect to get new policies which are in the same general direction as what Truss wanted—lower taxes on the rich, more privatization, less spent on social services—but at least Sunak is likely to do so in a way that makes the math(s?) actually add up.

All of this is unfortunate, but largely par for the course for the last few decades. It compares quite favorably to the situation in the US, where somehow a large chunk of Americans either don’t believe that an insurrection attempt occurred, are fine with it, or blame the other side, and as the guardrails of democracy continue breaking, somehow gasoline prices appear to be one of the most important issues in the midterm election.

You know what? Living through history sucks. I don’t want to live in “interesting times” anymore.

Just how rich is rich?

May 26 JDN 2458630

I think if there is one single thing I would like more people to know about economics, it is the sheer magnitude of global inequality. Most people seem to have no idea just how rich some people are—and how poor so many others are. They have a vision in their head of what “rich” and “poor” are, and their “rich” is a low-level Wall Street trader making $400,000 a year (the kind of people Gordon Gekko mocks in the film), and “poor” is someone who lives under a bridge in New York City. (They’re both New Yorkers, I guess. New Yorkers seem to be the iconic Americans, which is honestly more representative than you might think—80% of Americans live in urban or suburban areas.)

If we take a global perspective, this is not what “rich” and “poor” truly mean.

In next week’s post I’ll talk about what “poor” means. It’s really appallingly bad. We have to leave the First World in order to find it; many people here are poor, but not that poor. It’s so bad that I think once you really understand it, it can’t but change your whole outlook on the world. But I’m saving that for next week.

This week, I’ll talk about what “rich” really means in today’s world. We needn’t leave the United States, for the top 3 and 6 of the top 10 richest people in the world live here. And they are all White men, by the way, though Carlos Slim and Amancio Ortega are at least Latino.

Going down the list of billionaires ranked by wealth, you have to get down to 15th place before encountering a woman, and it’s really worse than that, because Francoise Bettencourt (15), Alice Walton (17), Jacqueline Mars (33), Yang Huiyan (42), Susan Klatton (46), Laurena Powell-Jobs (54), Abigail Johnson (71), and Iris Fontbona (74) are all heirs. The richest living woman who didn’t simply inherit from her father or husband is actually Gina Rinehart, the 75th richest person in the world. (And note that, while also in some sense an heir, Queen Elizabeth is not on that list; in fact, she’s nowhere near the richest people in the world. She’s not in the top 500.)

You have to get to 20th place before encountering someone non-White (Ma Huateng), and all the way down to 65th before encountering someone not White or East Asian (the Hinduja brothers). Not one of the top 100 richest people is Black.

Just how rich are these people? Well, there’s a meme going around saying that Jeff Bezos could afford to buy every homeless person in the world a house at median market price and still, with just what’s left over, be a multi-billionaire among the top 100 richest people in the world.

And that meme is completely correct. The math checks out.

There are about 554,000 homeless people in the US at any given time.

The median sale price of a currently existing house in the US is about $253,000.

Multiply those two numbers together, and you get $140 billion.

And Jeff Bezos has net wealth of $157 billion.

This means that he would still have $17 billion left after buying all those houses. The 100th richest person in the world has $13 billion, so Jeff Bezos would still be higher than that.

Even $17 billion is enough to spend over $2 million every single day—over $20 per second—and never run out of money as long as the dividends keep paying out.

Jeff Bezos in fact made so much in dividends and capital gains this past quarter that he was taking in as much money as the median Amazon employee’s annual salary—which is more than what I make as a grad student, and only slightly less than the median US individual incomeevery nine seconds. Yes, you read that correctly: Nine (9) seconds. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, Jeff Bezos probably received more in capital gains than you will make this whole year. And if not (because you’re relatively rich or you read quickly), I’m sure he will have in the time it takes you to read this whole post.

When Mitt Romney ran for President, a great deal was made of his net wealth of over $250 million. This is indeed very rich, richer than anyone really needs or probably deserves. But compared to the world’s richest, this is pocket change. Jeff Bezos gets that much in dividends and capital gains every day. Bill Gates could give away that much every day for a year and still not run out of money. (He doesn’t quite give that much, but he does give a lot.)

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is a medium-sized city of about 120,000 people (230th in the US by population), and relatively well-off (median household income about 16% higher than the US median). Nevertheless, if Jeff Bezos wanted to, he could give every single person in Ann Arbor the equivalent of 30 years of their income—over a million dollars each—and still have enough money left to be among the world’s 100 richest people.

Or suppose instead that all the world’s 500 richest people decided to give away all the money they have above $1 billion—so they’d all still be billionaires, but only barely. That $8.7 trillion they have together, minus the $500 billion they’re keeping, would be $8.2 trillion. In fact, let’s say they keep a little more, just to make sure they all have the same ordering: Give each one an extra $1 million for each point they are in the ranking, so that Jeff Bezos would stay on top at $1 B + 500 ($0.001 B) = $1.5 billion, while Bill Gates in second place would have $1 million less, and so on. That would leave us with still over $8 trillion to give away.

How far could that $8 trillion go? Well, suppose we divided it evenly between all 328 million people in the United States. How much would each person receive? Oh, just about $24,000—basically my annual income.

Or suppose instead we spread it out over the entire world: Every single man, woman, and child on the planet Earth gets an equal share. There are 7.7 billion people in the world, so by spreading out $8 trillion between them, each one would get over $1000. For you or I that’s a big enough windfall to feel. For the world’s poorest people, it’s more than they make in several years. It would be life-changing for them. (Actually that’s about what GiveDirectly gives each family—and it is life-changing.)

And let me remind you: This would be leaving them billionaires. They’re just not as much billionaires as before—they only have $1 billion instead of $20 billion or $50 billion or $100 billion. And even $1 billion is obviously enough to live however you want, wherever you want, for the rest of your life, never working another day if you don’t want to. With $1 billion, you can fly in jets (a good one will set you back $20 million), sail in yachts (even a massive 200-footer wouldn’t run much above $200 million), and eat filet mignon at every meal (in fact, at $25 per pound, you can serve it to yourself and a hundred of your friends without breaking a sweat). You can decorate your bedroom with original Jackson Pollock paintings (at $200 million, his most expensive painting is only 20% of your wealth) and bathe in bottles of Dom Perignon (at $400 per liter, a 200-liter bath would cost you about $80,000—even every day that’s only $30 million a year, or maybe half to a third of your capital income). Remember, this is all feasible at just $1 billion—and Jeff Bezos has over a hundred times that. There is no real lifestyle improvement that happens between $1 billion and $157 billion; it’s purely a matter of status and power.

Taking enough to make them mere millionaires would give us another $0.5 trillion to spend (about the GDP of Sweden, one-fourth the GDP of Canada, or 70% of the US military budget).

Do you think maybe these people have too much money?

I’m not saying that we should confiscate all private property. I’m not saying that we should collectivize all industry. I believe in free markets and private enterprise. People should be able to get rich by inventing things and starting businesses.

But should they be able to get that rich? So rich that one man could pay off every mortgage in a whole major city? So rich that the CEO of a company makes what his employees make in a year in less than a minute? So rich that 500 people—enough to fill a large lecture hall—own enough wealth that if it were spread out evenly they could give $1000 to every single person in the world?

If Jeff Bezos had $1.5 million, I’d say he absolutely earned it. Some high-level programmers at Amazon have that much, and they absolutely earned it. If he had $15 million, I’d think maybe he could deserve that, given his contribution to the world. If he had $150 million, I’d find it hard to believe that anyone could really deserve that much, but if it’s part of what we need to make capitalism work, I could live with that.

But Jeff Bezos doesn’t have $1.5 million. He doesn’t have $15 million. He doesn’t have $150 million. He doesn’t have $1.5 billion. He doesn’t even have $15 billion. He has $150 billion. He has over a thousand times the level of wealth at which I was already having to doubt whether any human being could possibly deserve so much money—and once it gets that big, it basically just keeps growing. A stock market crash might drop it down temporarily, but it would come back in a few years.

And it’s not like there’s nothing we could do to spread this wealth around. Some fairly simple changes in how we tax dividends and capital gains would be enough to get a lot of it, and a wealth tax like the one Elizabeth Warren has proposed would help a great deal as well. At the rates people have seriously proposed, these taxes would only really stop their wealth from growing; it wouldn’t meaningfully shrink it.

That could be combined with policy changes about compensation for corporate executives, particularly with regard to stock options, to make it harder to extract such a large proportion of a huge multinational corporation’s wealth into a single individual. We could impose a cap on the ratio between median employee salary (including the entire supply chain!) and total executive compensation (including dividends and capital gains!), say 100 to 1. (Making in 9 seconds what his employees make in a year, Jeff Bezos is currently operating at a ratio of over 3 million to 1.) If you exceed the cap, the remainder is taxed at 100%. This would mean that as a CEO you can still make $100 million a year, but only if your median employee makes $1 million. If your median employee makes $30,000, you’d better keep your own compensation under $3 million, because we’re gonna take the rest.

Is this socialism? I guess maybe it’s democratic socialism, the high-tax, high-spend #ScandinaviaIsBetter welfare state. But it would not be an end to free markets or free enterprise. We’re not collectivizing any industries, let alone putting anyone in guillotines. You could still start a business and make millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars; you’d simply be expected to share that wealth with your employees and our society as a whole, instead of hoarding it all for yourself.